May 8, 2015

[Movies] Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I have a bunch of older movies that bumped up in my "To Watch" list after I watched the HBO documentary Casting By somewhat recently. The documentary had pointed out many of the brilliant casting choices made back in the day that involved may key films and certain breakthrough performances that helped put some now-famous actors on the map, as it were.

Midnight Cowboy was one of those movies featured in the documentary and it's a movie I've heard about only vaguely. All I've every really know about the movie is the fact that it had won a number of awards at the time, but that's pretty much it. The documentary had brought the movie back onto my radar, in a manner of speaking.

The movie was pretty deep and it has all the hallmarks of the sort of great movie that a lot of more recent dramas aspire to emulate but don't always manage to do so. It's actually a rather dark tale with sometimes shocking visuals and somewhat uncomfortable subject matter. But in the end, it's a pretty moving entertainment experience.

Synopsis: Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 drama film directed by Joel Schlesinger. The screenplay was written by Waldo Salt based on the James Leo Herlihy novel of the same name. The movie won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay and is the only X-rated film to win Best Picture.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a young man from Texas who embarks on a journey to New York City. Dressed in a new cowboy outfit, he's convinced that he has what it takes to become a hustler / gigolo in the city given how he's convinced that women want rugged cowboy-type men. His initial efforts aren't too successful and the first woman he beds (Sylvia Miles) doesn't just avoid paying him, but even manages to get cab fare from him instead.

Joe eventually meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) a limping con man. He manages to convince Joe that he needs a manager of sorts in order to succeed as a male prostitute. Naturally Rizzo has a contact who might be able to help and he swindles Joe out of $20 by sending him to some Bible thumper instead. Joe eventually runs out of money as he struggles to figure out what to do and he eventually crosses paths with Rizzo again.

At first the movie seems all hopeful - we have your classic tale of a young man making his journey to the big city in the hopes of making his fortune. But when his goal is clearly to be become a prostitute (and not being forced into it out of desperation) then the movie takes on a darker tone. Throw in all the flashbacks that range from the charming to the disturbing and more and more the movie has a lot more to say that what is initially apparent. And that's really where the brilliance of the movie is.

It's hard to believe that the leading man is Jon Voight - time really flies I suppose. His performance is decent but also a little raw, which is to be expected. Then again, it does add a very genuine note of naivete to his portrayal that helps sell the role even more. And thus credit really has to go to the director and of course the casting director Marion Dougherty. Voight is quite the discovery in this film and he really helped things along.

Bu we can't discount the contributions of Dustin Hoffman either. This movie was filmed shortly after The Graduate. He's a completely different character here - gone is the confused young man trying to figure out his life and instead we have this sleazy, selfish character who seems like a horrible human being. He's clearly the sort of guy who only looks out for himself and the naive young Joe is the perfect dummy to take advantage of. And as much as he does manage to swindle Joe out of money in the beginning, the way he treats Joe as perhaps more than a friend later on is a dramatic shift in tone.

The movie is two stories at once - the one in the present with Joe's efforts to find a new life, and the second being the story told in flashbacks about Joe's life before he finally journeys to New York. Both stories have their share of highs and lows. But I think in the end both have a very somber note to them that just stresses the tragedies that Joe goes through. And what the story "means" exactly becomes something for the viewer to put together for themselves - and that's how some of the best films really leave a mark.

By the end of the movie, one can't help but feel for both Joe and Ratso. And their stories are rather sad for completely different reasons. How the two characters manage to endear themselves to viewers despite their less than savory life goals at the start of the movie is again major credit to the director as a storyteller.

In contrast, I'll admit that some of the flashbacks were a little shocking to the point of feeling rather disjoint as well. Some of them work and they really convey a particular message in how the images flash across the screen. Other times it feels a tad too fast and one can't help but feel like they missed something important just then . It's a tricky film technique and thankfully it works more often than not in this movie.

Midnight Cowboy is a complex tale presented in a deceptively simple manner. And the scenes that convey the most tend to be the ones without actual dialog. Thus this compelling story gets 4.5 moments of fantasy out of a possible 5.

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